Feds will test aid for competency programs

North Carolina community colleges and state universities will award college credit for military training and experience.

Hoping to speed older students to a degree, the U.S. Education Department will allow some colleges to award credit — and student aid — for competency and prior learning, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. The “experimental sites” will be announced this week.

Traditionally, federal student aid has been limited to programs that award credits for hours of instruction, known as “seat time.”

Starting last year, the department has allowed a handful of colleges to provide federal financial aid to students enrolled in direct-assessment programs, notes the Chronicle.  “If the experiments prove successful, they could make it easier for competency-based programs to qualify for student aid, opening the federal coffers to a much wider swath of nontraditional programs”

The Education Department’s announcement was followed by unanimous House approval of HR 3136, which would create a competency-based demonstration project. The bipartisan bill was sponsored by Rep. Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican, and Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat.

“It is common sense to evaluate students on what they know rather than how long they spend in a classroom, but years of government regulation have created a system that places more value on credit hours than years of actual experience,” said Salmon. Veterans and other adult students should benefit, he predicted.

Giving colleges and universities more flexibility will “shorten the time it takes to earn a degree and reduce college costs,” said Polis.

The White House issued a statement supporting the bill.

“Competency” programs really are testing for “mastery,” writes John F. Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, in an Inside Higher Ed commentary. Graduate schools and employers want to know what candidates can do, not just what they know.

This way up


STEPHANIE RABELLO, REGISTERED NURSE | Working her way from practical nurse to registered nurse to bachelor-degree nurse. Preston Mack for The Wall Street Journal

There’s more than one route to the middle class, writes Tamar Jacoby in This Way Up in the Wall Street Journal. “Americans have a host of postsecondary options other than a four-year degree—associate degrees, occupational certificates, industry certifications, apprenticeships.”

What they need are “easy on-ramps, goal-oriented job training and a series of ascending steps, with industry-certified credentials to guide the way.”

In Orlando, Fla., there are many paths to the nursing profession, she writes.

The University of Central Florida trains only bachelor-degree nurses. You need an outstanding high-school record, there’s a long waiting list, and tuition is $14,000 for in-state students—and more than three times that if you’re not from Florida. Two well-equipped, award-winning community colleges—Seminole State and Valencia —offer associate-degree RN programs, where tuition is $7,500. Then there is Orlando Tech, a county-run career center, located in an old building in an industrial area near downtown, which trains licensed practical nurses for about $5,000.

RNs average $65,000 year, while LPNs start below $40,000. But there are ways to move up.

The streamlined route starts in high school: a “dual enrollment” magnet program that allows focused, able students to earn college credit and professional certifications, including as a nursing assistant. Participants who enroll within two years at Seminole or Valencia get advanced placement credit, saving as much as $1,250. And those who are really in a hurry can matriculate simultaneously at UCF, earning “concurrent” credit for advanced courses taken at community-college prices, then graduate in just three years with a UCF bachelor’s degree.

For many, it’s a long journey.  Stephanie Rabello, 41, went from high school to a 10-month LPN program at a local career center. After nearly 20 years as a practical nurse, she enrolled in a yearlong LPN-to-RN “bridge” program at Seminole State. “Online classes and convenient clinical rotations” let her continue working while she studied, writes Jacoby. Now an RN, Rabello hopes to earn a bachelor’s in nursing at UCF.

Sherry Harris, 33, who followed a similar path from LPN to RN, calls it “step-by-step” professional training—the “working-class way in.” Ms. Harris is now taking the next step: an RN-to-BSN program for a bachelor of science degree in nursing.

Jacoby, president of Opportunity America, also looks at welding — which can pay as much as $100,000 a year — and franchise management.

Nearly 1 million lack access to federal loans

Nearly one million community college students nationwide — about 8.5 percent of the total — can’t take out federal student loans because their college doesn’t participate in the program, according to a report by The Institute For College Access and Success (TICAS).

Denied access to “the safest and most affordable way to borrow for college,” some students turn to “more costly and risky forms of borrowing such as credit cards or private loans,” reports At What Cost?  Others reduce their “chances of graduating by working longer hours or cutting back on classes.”

“Most community college students still don’t use loans to pay for their education, but for those who need to borrow, federal student loans can make the difference between graduating and having to drop out,” said Debbie Cochrane, TICAS’s research director and the report’s lead author. “Only 17% of community college students take out loans, but 37% of community college associate’s degree graduates have federal loans.”

Native-American, African-American, and Latino community college students were the most likely to lack access, reports TICAS.

The report takes a closer look at California, Georgia, and North Carolina.

Community colleges can avoid defaults by helping students borrow wisely, argues TICAS, citing Albany Technical College in Georgia.

“Barring access to federal student loans doesn’t keep students from borrowing—it just keeps them from borrowing federal loans, which are the safest option,” said Cochrane.

Community college students could lose access to Pell Grants if their college has a high default rate, said the American Association of Community Colleges in astatement. “Some community colleges are faced with a loss of eligibility later this year.”

If a college participates in the federal loan program, financial aid officers can’t limit loans to students who are unlikely to be able to make loan payments.

If colleges could control overborrowing and not risk Pell eligibility, they’d be more willing to offer federal loans, AACC’s David Baime told Inside Higher Ed.  “We strongly believe that the penalty of losing the Pell eligibility for nonpayment of loans doesn’t make much sense and we wish that policy would be changed,” he said. “The threat of that loss is tremendous, and it’s a very serious concern for colleges.”

Community colleges, along with other types of institutions of higher education, have been pressing Congress to give them the power to limit the amount their students can borrow in federal loans, as a tool to safeguard against overborrowing.

This year, colleges and universities face sanctions for high default rates. A community college in rural Texas could lose eligibility for federal student aid.

The cheap and the not so cheap

The federal College Affordability and Transparency Center has updated its information on the most expensive and the most affordable college options.

The highest tuition college in the public, two-year sector is the University of Pittsburgh-Titusville, which charges $11,324 a year. New Hampshire community colleges dominate the high-tuition list.

California and New Mexico community colleges charge the least: College of the Siskiyous in California costs only $573 a year and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic in Albuquerque costs $675.

The tool also estimates “net price,” the cost of attendance minus likely grant and scholarship aid. This includes living costs, which is misleading for students at non-residential colleges. Most community college students live at home and don’t incur additional living costs by enrolling in college.

CCAP: Fed aid drives up college costs

Federal aid has failed to improve educational opportunity for low- and moderate-income students, concludes Dollars, Cents and Nonsense: The Harmful Effects of Federal Student Aid.  Instead, the financial-aid system has enabled colleges to raise tuition, the study by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity finds. The proportion of lower-income college graduates is lower.

By fueling a rise in tuition, federal aid has led to “enormous student loan debts.”

With their indifference and even hostility to academic excellence, these programs have contributed to grade inflation and mediocre learning outcomes. They have . . . promoted the non-academic side of university life, complete with luxury housing, climbing walls, golf courses, and hedonistic living. . . . These programs have led to underemployment of college students, to credential inflation, to rent-seeking amongst members of university communities. In short, they have eroded the quality and integrity of higher education.

Richard Vedder, the Ohio University economist who runs CCAP, discusses how federal student aid led to tuition increases. “What if that rate of tuition increases had continued after 1978 instead of the 3 to 4 percent increases actually observed? What would tuition fees be today? About 59 percent lower. State universities charging $10,000 in-state fees (a common fee today) would instead be charging a bit over $4,000.”

California: 2-year degree takes 4 years

A “two-year” degree typically takes more than four years, raising the The Real Cost of College in California,” reports Campaign for College Opportunity. Furthermore, associate degree graduates earn a median of 78 credits — well over the 60 required. All those extra credits lead to higher costs and fewer available seats at the state’s community colleges.

At California State University campuses, where many community college students hope to transfer, the median is 4.7 years for a four-year degree and 135 credits instead of 120.

Reducing the number of excess credits by just one in the community college system would save students $2 million in fees, save the state $21 million and create space for an additional 7,320 full-time students, notes Michele Siqueiros, the Campaign’s executive director.  A 10 percent reduction in credits would yield $16 million in student savings, and $168 million in savings to the state, which could create space for an additional 58,560 students.

Time is a key part of the “college affordability crisis,”  Siqueiros told the Los Angeles Times.

During the recession, California’s 112 community colleges lost $1 billion in funding. “Because of the lack of state funding, we had to reduce our workload and students were on long waiting lists, so that was a big factor,” said Francisco Rodriguez, the new chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District.

Shut out of the classes they needed, some students signed up for whatever courses had empty seats to remain eligible for financial aid, the study found.

The report recommends:

Get students in and through pre-college level classes faster and improve the way students are placed into college level math and English

Require campuses to do a better job of matching class offerings with student needs

Increase college funding to restore classes so that students can get the courses they need and graduate more quickly

Encourage students to enroll full-time and take a full 15-credit course load every semester

Increase financial aid knowledge, simplify the financial aid process, and increase the amount of financial aid available to students so that more students can attend college full time and graduate on time

Provide information on time to degree to students, policymakers and researchers

Many community college students nationwide earn extra credits, writes researcher Matthew Zeidenberg in a 2012 working paper. Good advising could help students save time and money, while raising their odds of completing a degree.

Students may need to experiment to gain clarity about academic and career goals; they may be taking courses that deepen their knowledge or improve their skills more generally; and there may be labor market returns to more credits independent of a credential. On the other hand, students may . . . lack information about the correct courses to take to complete a program of study, or they may accumulate excess credits when their required classes aren’t available, thus forcing them to enroll in “extraneous” courses that allow them to maintain full-time status for financial aid.

Colleges could “direct undecided students to intensive one-on-one academic and career counseling” while using “light-touch” or e-advising for students with clear goals, Zeidenberg writes. “Such a system could electronically track every student and contact them via email if they register for courses that do not advance them in their declared program or will not transfer to their target institution, and offer alternative registration options that would satisfy these goals.”

Georgia’s Guided Pathways to Success is designed to help students earn the credits they need — without excess credits — to cut the time and cost of earning a degree.

Indiana debates free tuition

Indiana is debating free tuition for community college students, reports the Indianapolis Star.

Nearby Tennessee has promised a free community college education in hopes of improving job skills.

“Think how we’d change the state,” said Jeff Terp, Ivy Tech Community College chief operating officer. “We’d have one of the most educated workforces in the country.”

However, Teresa Lubbers, state commissioner for higher education, fears eliminating tuition would do little for low-income students, who already are eligible for state and federal aid. Many attend IvyTech for free and have grant money left over to pay for books and expenses, she said.

Most of the benefits of free tuition would flow to students whose families can afford to pay community college tuition, Lubbers said.

Corinthian crashes

Under investigation for falsifying job placement rates, for-profit Corinthian Colleges will sell 85 campuses and close 12 others. The national company runs Everest, WyoTech and Heald career colleges.

The Department of Education had put a hold on Corinthian’s access to federal student aid. Under an agreement reached last week, the DOE will provide $35 million in student aid funding to provide time to sell or close the colleges. Corinthian’s finances will be monitored closely by an independent auditor.

Corinthian receives $1.4 billion in Pell grants and federal student loans each year, which represents 85 percent of total revenuesreports the Miami Herald.

The company is facing charges in several states, including Florida and California, of exploiting and misleading low-income students.

Florida’s community colleges, which are some of the best in the nation, often offer similar programs at a far lower price. For example, Everest’s Pompano Beach location charges about $15,000 in tuition for a medical assisting diploma; at Broward College, the same program costs $1,698 for in-state students.

The Florida attorney general’s investigation of Everest has produced 100 pages of complaints, reports the Herald.

The California attorney general’s lawsuit cited internal Corinthian documents that described its students as “isolated” individuals with “low self-esteem” who have “few people in their lives who care about them.”

The California lawsuit states “the placement rates published by [Corinthian] are at times as high as 100 percent, leading prospective students to believe that if they graduate they will get a job. These placement rates are false and not supported by the data. In some cases there is no evidence that a single student in a program obtained a job during the time frame specified in the disclosures.”

In some instances, the suit says, Corinthian paid temp agencies to give its graduates short-lived jobs — so it could inflate the job placement numbers, and maintain the accreditation required to receive federal aid.

Corinthian’s enrollment has fallen to 72,000 students, estimates the DOE.

National Journal has more on the fall of Corinthian.

Tulsa offers debt-free college

Tulsa Community College is free for local high school graduates with a C average or better. Tulsa Achieves pays for up to 63 credits or three years of college. Public, private and home-schooled students in Tulsa County are eligible.

Seven years ago Tom McKeon, president of the community college, persuaded local business and political leaders to invest in educating local graduates, reports NPR. “I think we’re seeing kids that never, ever dreamed that college was a possibility for them because parents didn’t think it was within their realm,” McKeon says.

Some 10,000 students have received gap-closing aid, mostly funded by local property taxes. The average cost is $3,400 per student per year.

When asked if taxpayers are getting their money’s worth, McKeon throws out these numbers: eight out of ten students who enter the program… finish it.

One key to that retention rate is the program’s structure. Students get lots of encouragement and help — tutorials on note-taking, test preparation, research and time management skills. They’re even required to take a course called “Strategies for Academic Success.”

. . . In the beginning, about 40 percent of students who went through the program transferred to four-year institutions. Today, it’s less than 10 percent. There are a few reasons for the drop. One positive: with the economy picking up, more students are finding good jobs after they get their associate’s degree. The bad news: for many, transferring to a four-year school is still too expensive.

Next year, Tennessee will offer tuition-free community college to high school graduates, funded with lottery revenues. Oregon is considering a similar plan.

Boomerang

Annie Kasinecz, 27, lives with her mother in Downers Grove, Illinois. She borrowed $75,000 to earn a degree in advertising and public relations at Loyola University in Chicago. Now working as a project coordinator, she’s lived at home rent-free for four years.  Credit Damon Casarez for The New York Times

The Boomerang Kids Won’t Leave home, predicts the New York Times Magazine. With college loans and low-paying jobs, they can’t afford to pay rent.

One in five people in their 20s and early 30s is currently living with his or her parents. And 60 percent of all young adults receive financial support from them. That’s a significant increase from a generation ago, when only one in 10 young adults moved back home and few received financial support.

. . . Those who graduated college as the housing market and financial system were imploding faced the highest debt burden of any graduating class in history. Nearly 45 percent of 25-year-olds, for instance, have outstanding loans, with an average debt above $20,000. . . . And more than half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, meaning they make substandard wages in jobs that don’t require a college degree.

The photographer, who lives at home and freelances, was graduated from an art college with $120,000 in debt. 

Alexandria Romo, 28, also a Loyola graduate, earned an economics degree but says she “had no idea what I was doing when I took out those loans” at the age of 18. She borrowed $90,000. Romo wishes she’d been taught about student loans, math and finance before borrowing at 12.5 percent interest. Romo lives at home in Austin and works at a security-guard company. Her dream is to be an environmentalist.

Community college students may struggle to graduate, but they don’t run up huge debts in the process.